It was pitch black outside, but the weak kerosene lamp in the nakamal provided just enough light to see the excited expression on his face. I touched on topics that were dear to him – tradition and culture. There was no better person to tell me about these than chief Ayar Rantes. So, that’s how we met. In a nakamal – a kava bar in the remote South West Bay, Vanuatu. Talking about tradition and culture, topics that important to both of us for completely different reasons.
Everyone in South West bay understood that Ayar was a unique man. Considered by locals to be strong headed, very opinionated and perhaps even a little cunning. To this day he remains one of the most charismatic, interesting and likeable characters I’ve photographed.
Note: This post was originally published in 2010, shortly after I met chief Ayar. It got lost and forgotten on my old blog, so I’m posting it again here, with some minor editing changes and more photographs.
It's about land & culture
Two things that matter to Ayar more than anything in the world are his culture and his land. He has needed to possess at least a little of the mentioned qualities in order to hold onto these in the quickly changing world which swallows and absorbs everything in its path without waiting.
For Ayar, his land is much more than just land. He believes that the spirit of his people came from it, from the thick forest, mountain rivers, creeks and some of the most fertile soil on the planet. Ayar is of that land and the land is a continuation of him, it’s can’t be separated, like an organ vital to the body.
Ayar realizes that others might want to take his land away. Vanuatu is infamous for land disputes. In order to basically not get screwed, you have to be ready to fight and to protect your land and your rights. Before the fighting was done with weapons, now one must play by the rules of the modern world in the realm of law and politics. Ayar has negotiated with the government to create a law which ensures that his land will never be sold and the only way it can be transferred is from generation to generation, just as it has been for as long as anyone can remember.
Should there be any doubt or dispute in the future, Ayar’s children, who have all been given modern, western education will be able to stand up for their land. The youngest is studying law, the middle is a director of a trading company, both in Port Villa (Vanuatu’s capital) and the eldest owns a small shop, in a village close to the ancestral land.
It is the eldest son to whom Ayar has entrusted the task of keeping the family history and his tribe’s culture alive. He told me that he once pulled the boy aside and said “You’ve had enough white-man education, now it’s time to learn about kastom (the word used for tradition/culture in Vanuatu).” Ayar taught his son how to beat the traditional, wooden gong, how to dance, how to paint masks, how to prepare ceremonies and sacrifice pigs.
It’s hard to tell whether kastom will indeed stay alive for generations, but the pattern which the culture follows in parts of Vanuatu defies reason, or at least it defies the reasoning of the white-man, as the locals refer to almost all westerns.
On Malekula, the home island of Ayar there were still cases of cannibalism and tribal warfare until late 60s. Then, as majority of the population was finally converted to Christianity, the natives suddenly turned away from their past and many even became ashamed of it. The church did their best to discourage anything that would remind the people of their bygone "savage" ways, calling grade-taking and ceremonial pig killing, which were vital parts of the culture for so long – sinful.
history and the church
By mid seventies, in South West Bay, the area of Malekula island, where chief Ayar’s ancestral land is, most traces of the once unique identity of the smol nambas, the formerly fierce cannibal warrior tribe was almost gone. That is until Ayar, inspired and influenced by the knowledge passed on to him by his father decided to hold a grade-taking ceremony, to kill a pig, to become a chief and to begin the revival of the smol nambas culture in South West Bay.
Fascinatingly, before Ayar decided to become a chief he was already a prominent church member, which meant that he had close ties to the very institution which tried their best to rid the natives off of their history and culture. This didn’t seem right to Ayar and after the pig killing that made him chief, he went to the church to pray. This move was intentional, Ayar wanted to show that church and kastom could go hand in hand, that they could co-exist. The way Ayar saw it, both were about love, peace and respect for other human beings.
The Presbyterian Church had a different opinion and decided to discipline Ayar by keeping him away from Sunday services for three months. Unshaken and still convinced that church and kastom could and should co-exist, Ayar went up into the hills to build a church there for the few unconverted or (semi-converted) smol namba tribes. Once the church was completed he started attending the services in nothing more than a namba (a banana leaf around the private member).
This was a big no-no once again, but no one could discipline Ayar up in the hills. Again he wanted to showhow church and culture could co-exist, but to his surprise the mountain natives quickly exchanged their nambas for “white man clothes” and began to move away from their ancient traditions without ever really looking back. Unknowingly and unwillingly chief Ayar pushed the only remaining purely traditional people away from their history and culture.
A Cultural revival
This story would have a very sad ending, if it were to end this way and in most cases, in most countries, it probably would have. But this goes back to what I said about the pattern which the culture follows in Vanuatu makes no sense. Interestingly and strangely enough, Ayar’s pig killing and grade-taking gained a small wave of support among some of the older chiefs. It’s as if he reminded them that what they had was too precious to lose, even if it was considered sinful by the church, and so began a small revival of the old ways, minus the cannibalism or the warfare.
Today's South West Bay, Malekula is a fascinating area. The main draw-card for the few visitors that ever make it here is undoubtedly the culture, which still stubbornly holds on with its last breath, thanks to people like chief Ayar Rantes.
The younger generation have also recently caught on to the fact that there’s value in what their ancestors have passed on to them, not only spiritual, but commercial value. The few tourists that do make it to South West Bay are willing to pay to watch traditional dances and ceremonies. As a result new festivals and cultural programs are in the plans.
It’ll be interesting to observe which turn the culture of South West Bay takes in the next couple of decades. Will the youth continue to see the value in their past or will they be seduced to leave the small villages of South West Bay for “greener pastures” in Vanuatu’s capital and commercial centre – Port Villa? Will the traditions remain true to their original intentions or will they continue to exist purely as a form of entertainment or cultural experiences for the visitors?
One thing for sure is that Ayar Rantes is not very keen on festivals or ceremonies which stray away from the correct way of doing things, which don’t follow the tribal law laid out by his ancestors. He loves the idea of tourism coming and helping the locals understand the value of their own culture, but Ayar won’t take what’s sacred to him and simply make a show of it all. The question is "Will it matter when he’s gone?" No one knows and perhaps for now, there’s no reason to think too hard about the future, but rather to try and catch the present, what still remains of the past.
Hanging out with chief Ayar
Chief Ayar drumming beats on the traditional gong. There are dances, costumes, masks and specific gong beats for each ceremony. Here Ayar is in front of the remains of his Nakamal. The same word which is used these days for kava bars was initially used for a chief’s sacred house – a place of great spiritual significance for any village. Chief Ayar’s sacred house was destroyed during a hurricane a couple of years ago and it’s been one of his main goals to rebuild it, the same way that it was before.
Ayar loves walking through the forest that falls on his land, or the bush as it's referred in Vanuatu. He tells me that he isn’t really happy when he’s in the village. The village is not his land, it's community land. He doesn’t feel at home there and so, to feed his soul he walks through the bush every day. He talks about how much he loves the fresh breeze, the smells of various plants, which he occasionally tears off and rubs against each other to demonstrate (the smell). His dogs help him chase off any wild pigs, which like to come and make a mess of his crops.
Ayar excitedly told me that coconuts from his land would be the sweetest I'd ever try. He opened up a couple for me and Tanya, before he masterfully chopped the top off of his own. This was indeed one of the best tasting, sweetest coconuts I had ever tried.
I was pretty shocked when I saw Ayar in this white-man outfit. I joked with him, saying that I didn’t recognise him from the man in the namba I had seen a couple of days ago in the bush. To this day Ayar remains closely associated with the church, in fact he's one of the senior and most respected church elders in the village of Wintua, which borders with his land.
I had a few very interesting conversations about religion and tradition with Ayar during my time in South West Bay. At the end of the day it was interesting to know that he’d leave Church without problems to go back to the bush. In fact, he's planning to go back to live in the bush in the next couple of years. When I asked him the pressing question of “What would you chose – church or kastom?” he replied “kastom – it is my life, my history, my culture".
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